Ac­tions speak louder

Of­ten a self-pro­tec­tive re­flex, body lan­guage re­flects our true emo­tional re­sponses. He­len O’Cal­laghan talks to a for­mer FBI agent about how to de­ci­pher what’s re­ally be­ing said

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Cover Story -

OUR eyes may be our most ex­pres­sive body part but our feet are the most hon­est. This is ac­cord­ing to re­tired FBI agent and spe­cial­ist in non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tions Joe Navarro, whose new book The Dic­tionary of Body

Lan­guage (HarperCollins, €14) ex­plains the hid­den mean­ings be­hind the many con­scious and sub-con­scious things we do with our bod­ies.

Body lan­guage, he says, is about sur­vival. If our an­ces­tors had to con­sciously think about freez­ing when they met a tiger or snake, the de­lay in ac­tion would mean cer­tain death. “Our lim­bic sys­tem re­acts to the world to pro­tect us. Our bod­ies evolved these short­cuts – when faced with a threat, we freeze with­out think­ing.”

So what about those hon­est feet? Navarro says when we’re com­fort­able in some­one’s com­pany our brain al­lows us to cross our legs, so we’re ba­si­cally off bal­ance. “The very minute some­one says some­thing to make us feel threat­ened, our brain im­me­di­ately forces us to put both feet down so we’re not off bal­ance.”

Navarro has seen feet tell the truth in sce­nar­ios like school re­unions. Some­one – meet­ing some­one they had a bad ex­pe­ri­ence with, even decades ago – may wear a so­cial face, a so­cial smile, but their feet will be turned away. “The brain shifts the feet away – it doesn’t per­mit us to go un­hesi­tat­ingly to­wards some­thing dan­ger­ous.”

As a FBI agent, Florid­abased Navarro saw a lot of per­cep­tion man­age­ment.

“We have to be care­ful with non-ver­bals be­cause some peo­ple will use it to ma­nip­u­late. Ac­tors ma­nip­u­late body lan­guage all the time of course and so do chil­dren [for ex­am­ple, child hav­ing tantrum to get what he wants]. And then there are the adults who pre­tend to be your friend or that they’re en­joy­ing your com­pany.”

Nice­ness is not good­ness, is one of Navarro’s favourite max­ims, and his book has a body lan­guage pointer for dis­tin­guish­ing false smiles from true. “With a false smile, some­times only one side of the face is in­volved or the smile goes to­ward the ear rather than the eyes. It looks con­trived. A true smile en­gages the eyes and the fa­cial mus­cles smoothly on both sides of the face.”

De­scrib­ing non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion as “pow­er­ful stuff”, he says it’s the prin­ci­pal way we com­mu­ni­cate with ba­bies, choose our mates (“we don’t ask them to write a the­sis”) and as­sess for dan­ger.

Of course, there are cul­tural dif­fer­ences in bod­ily cues. “The cus­tom of shak­ing hands isn’t uni­ver­sal – in some cul­tures a bow or kiss on the cheek might be more ap­pro­pri­ate,” says Navarro, adding that eye con­tact is gov­erned by cul­tural norms too. “In some cul­tures, it’s per­mis­si­ble to look at some­one for three to four sec­onds, while in oth­ers any­thing be­yond two sec­onds is con­sid­ered rude.

“Cul­ture also de­ter­mines who can look at whom. For in­stance, many African Amer­i­can and His­panic chil­dren are taught to look down when ad­dressed by el­ders, as a form of re­spect.”

But non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is hard­wired into us. “It has been our uni­ver­sal lan­guage. When the sea­men sailed the seas in the old days, they used non-ver­bals. In the Mediter­ranean area be­tween Carthage and Rome, there must have been 100 dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” he says, adding that in such a sce­nario body lan­guage was es­sen­tial.

Use body lan­guage to read what’s re­ally go­ing on per­son­ally, pro­fes­sion­ally and so­cially.


It’s a good sign if your date leans for­ward when you do. Mir­ror­ing sug­gests agree­ment in con­ver­sa­tion, mood or tem­per­a­ment. Watch for wrist be­hav­iours too, says Navarro – these can be a win­dow into the mind. “Hold­ing a drink or cig­a­rette, a wo­man will ex­pose the in­ner wrist if she’s in­ter­ested in [her date] or com­fort­able. The minute she isn’t, she’ll ro­tate the wrist and only ex­pose the out­side. A wo­man might also play with her hair, palm out.” Other bod­ily cues that ro­mance is in the air in­clude pupil di­la­tion – eyes try­ing to soak up as much light as pos­si­ble – and in­creased blink rate, which can in­di­cate arousal. Watch out too for armpit ex­po­sure (e.g. scratch­ing back of head while ex­pos­ing the armpit di­rectly to­ward a per­son of in­ter­est) and cheek fram­ing – rest­ing jaw on an ex­tended thumb and plac­ing in­dex fin­ger up along side of the cheek shows in­ter­est from a dis­tance.


Neck touch­ing is a big in­di­ca­tor of in­se­cu­ri­ties, ap­pre­hen­sion, anx­i­ety, wor­ries or is­sues, says Navarro. “It’s of­ten over­looked – yet it’s one of the most ac­cu­rate when it comes to re­veal­ing that some­thing’s both­er­ing us.” He re­calls a so­cial oc­ca­sion with a group of pro­fes­sors and their wives. Some­one said: ‘Hope­fully, we can do this again in an­other six months.’ Navarro noted a wife nearby clutch­ing at her neck­lace and mak­ing a fist of her hand.

“Touch­ing or cov­er­ing the in­dented area of the neck be­low the Adam’s ap­ple and just above the up­per chest in­di­cates con­cern, in­se­cu­ri­ties or fear. Men tend to grab their neck or throat ro­bustly or cover this area with their full hand as they ad­just their tie or grab their col­lar. Women touch this area more fre­quently than men and they tend to do so more lightly, with their fin­ger­tips. Whether done del­i­cately or strongly, cov­er­ing the weak­est point of the body sig­ni­fies some­thing’s at is­sue,” says Navarro, adding that a few months later the wife in ques­tion served her hus­band with di­vorce pa­pers.

Ven­ti­lat­ing hair is an­other way peo­ple self-pacify when stressed. “Women lift up the hair at the back of their neck quickly when con­cerned, upset, stressed or flus­tered. Men tend to ven­ti­late on the top of the head by run­ning their fingers through the hair.”

What we’re do­ing with our chin can be an­other stress give­away. “Some­times the chin re­flects emo­tional tur­moil even be­fore the eyes. When we’re wor­ried or anx­ious, we in­stinc­tively move our chin as close to the neck as pos­si­ble – an ex­cel­lent in­di­ca­tor of in­se­cu­rity, doubt, even fear.”


Sneak­ing a paci­fy­ing touch by slightly rub­bing the nose with the in­dex fin­ger in­di­cates ten­sion that’s be­ing masked and the need to con­vey the per­cep­tion that ev­ery­thing’s fine, says Navarro, who sug­gests look­ing for it in pro­fes­sion­als ac­cus­tomed to be­ing in con­trol but who are un­der stress.

On the other hand, when peo­ple are pleased with them­selves but are try­ing not to show it, they of­ten hold their arms against their body and lift their hands at the wrist so the wrist’s al­most at a 90-de­gree an­gle, with palms fac­ing down. It’s also used when some­one’s try­ing to con­trol


good if your date leans for­ward when you do. Mir­ror­ing sug­gests agree­ment

their ex­cite­ment and don’t want to be no­ticed.


In­ter­lac­ing of the fingers be­hind the head with el­bows out makes the per­son seem big­ger. It’s a ter­ri­to­rial dis­play we do when com­fort­able and in charge – the in­ter­laced fingers be­hind the head are com­fort­ing and sooth­ing, while el­bows out projects con­fi­dence.

Shoul­der widen­ing and arm spread­ing (spread­ing arms over sev­eral chairs or a couch) and el­bows spread­ing out (across a ta­ble or desk) demon­strate con­fi­dence through a ter­ri­to­rial dis­play. This is of­ten sub­con­scious and the per­son may be un­aware they’re ex­hibit­ing self-as­sured­ness.


“There’s no Pinoc­chio ef­fect, no sin­gle be­hav­iour indica­tive of de­cep­tion,” says Navarro. “When some­one’s asked a ques­tion, they may show anx­i­ety, dis­like or con­cern but you don’t know why they’re do­ing that. A per­son dis­play­ing dis­com­fort isn’t nec­es­sar­ily ly­ing – they may just not ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing asked the ques­tion.”

Re­ac­tions to be­ing asked a ques­tion that show psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­com­fort in­clude avoid­ing eye con­tact, look­ing down and lip bit­ing – again not nec­es­sar­ily signs of de­cep­tion. Keep your eyes open when some­one’s look­ing for ac­cep­tance though.

“When in­di­vid­u­als lack con­fi­dence or lie, they tend to scru­ti­nise their au­di­ence to see if they’re be­ing be­lieved. This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily de­mon­stra­tive of de­cep­tion, only of seek­ing ac­cep­tance for what is said. A rule of thumb: the truth-teller merely con­veys, while the liar of­ten tries to con­vince,” says Navarro, though he notes this has to be as­sessed un­der very neu­tral con­di­tions. “If I tell you the truth but you look at me very quizzi­cally, you may be com­pelled to try to con­vince me.

“Re­searchers [also] tell us that when peo­ple sud­denly be­gin to lie, they en­gage in fewer hand ges­tures—and with less em­pha­sis. If the hands sud­denly be­come pas­sive or re­strained, it’s likely the per­son is los­ing con­fi­dence in what he’s say­ing, for what­ever rea­son.”


Go for a good hand­shake, good eye con­tact, a smile if ap­pro­pri­ate, and the arm ex­tended with a slight bend at the el­bow. “The fingers ap­proach the other per­son’s hand point­ing down­ward, the hands clasp with equal pres­sure, en­gulf­ing each other, which al­lows for re­lease of the hor­mone oxy­tocin (fur­thers so­cial bond­ing) and af­ter a sec­ond or so the hands are re­leased,” says Navarro. Which of course means Trump-like crush­ing or lengthy re­ten­tion of the hand is a def­i­nite nono.

Also, a happy eye­brow flash (arch­ing of eye­brows) can be im­mensely pow­er­ful. “It con- veys ex­cite­ment or the recog­ni­tion of some­thing pleas­ing. We arch our brows in less than one-fifth of a sec­ond. It’s a grav­ity-de­fy­ing be­hav­iour – it’s per­formed in an up­ward di­rec­tion, and [like] most grav­ity-de­fy­ing be­hav­iours, it sig­ni­fies some­thing pos­i­tive,” ex­plains Navarro, who says the Ir­ish are par­tic­u­larly good at eye­brow flash­ing.

“Last time I was in Lim­er­ick, I was be­ing in­tro­duced to peo­ple in a pub. Every­body said ‘hi Joe’ and they all lit up and arched their eye­brows. It’s very wel­com­ing.”


The hand steeple – place fin­ger­tips of both hands to­gether, spread them and then arch hands so the tips of the fingers look like a church steeple – is a uni­ver­sal dis­play of con­fi­dence of­ten used by those in a lead­er­ship po­si­tion. Think Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel. A close cousin of this one is mod­i­fied steeple – in­ter­lace all of the fingers, with the ex­cep­tion of the in­dex fingers, which are erect and touch­ing at the fin­ger­tips. “It looks more con­trite than a reg­u­lar hand steeple – none­the­less, it still sig­ni­fies as­sur­ance and con­fi­dence,” says Navarro.

Bod­ily sig­nals that some­one lacks con­fi­dence, on the other hand, in­clude rais­ing and keep­ing both shoul­ders high to­wards the ears, sud­den cov­er­ing of the eyes with a hand or fingers, the chin sud­denly point­ing down­ward in re­sponse to a ques­tion or fin­ger hold­ing – hold­ing our own fingers lightly in front of us. “It’s a very tac­tile, self-sooth­ing be­hav­iour. Prince Harry is fa­mous for this,” says Navarro.


Neck ex­po­sure – tilt­ing the head to the side, ex­pos­ing the side of the neck, is one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to win oth­ers over, es­pe­cially when cou­pled with a smile, says Navarro. “We in­stinc­tively tilt our head when we hold or even see a new­born baby. As we get older, the head tilt fea­tures in courtship be­hav­iour, as we stare into a lover’s eyes with our head canted to the side, ex­pos­ing our vul­ner­a­ble neck. In per­sonal and pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships this be­hav­iour also sig­ni­fies a per­son is lis­ten­ing and in­ter­ested. It’s a pow­er­fully dis­arm­ing be­hav­iour, ex­tremely use­ful dur­ing con­fronta­tion.”


Eye­brow asym­me­try – one eye­brow arches high while the other re­mains in the nor­mal po­si­tion or sinks lower – sig­nals the per­son’s ques­tion­ing or doubt­ing what’s be­ing said. “The ac­tor Jack Ni­chol­son is fa­mous for ques­tion­ing what oth­ers say by this method [whether he’s on or off­screen].” Navarro also as­so­ci­ates ear­lobe rub­bing with doubt, hes­i­ta­tion or weigh­ing of op­tions.

“Ac­tor Humphrey Bog­art was no­to­ri­ous for play­ing with his ear­lobe as he pon­dered ques­tions.” Watch too what some­one’s chin is telling you – mov­ing the chin left to right against the palm of the hand is a sub­con­scious ex­pres­sion of dis­agree­ment. “I’ve seen peo­ple sit­ting around a con­fer­ence ta­ble show silent dis­plea­sure by shift­ing their chin while rest­ing on the palm of their hand.”


Our ven­tral or tummy side is one of the most vul­ner­a­ble places on the body. Navarro says we turn our tummy side away from oth­ers when we don’t like them, they make us un­easy or we don’t like what they say. This he calls ven­tral de­nial. “[When you] meet some­one you don’t care for, your fa­cial greet­ing might be friendly but your belly will sub­con­sciously shift away, [es­sen­tially] deny­ing that per­son your most vul­ner­a­ble side. This can even take place among friends if some­thing dis­agree­able is said.”

He points to Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. “Over the last year of their [mar­riage], I can’t re­mem­ber a time when they were belly to belly. Al­ways turn­ing your [tummy] away is a true re­flec­tion of the lim­bic sys­tem say­ing ‘there’s an­tipa­thy here’.”

Joe Navaro: Non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is ‘pow­er­ful stuff’.

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